Voices of CS: Shayan Hooshmand

The CS undergrad shares how he started doing research in the Speech Lab and won a Best Paper award at EMNLP 2021


Shayan Hooshmand
Shayan Hooshmand

Shayan Hooshmand grew up speaking Spanish, Persian, and English. Every time he switched between the three languages he felt like he was walking between social worlds and presenting a different version of himself. Hooshmand is also an actor and it is this same affinity for shapeshifting that underpins his theatre career. As he got older, he tried to learn more languages or at least more about as many languages as he could.

Once he got to Columbia, he was all set to study computer science (CS) and found himself gravitating toward natural language processing and speech processing because those research areas combined CS and linguistics. The prospect of teaching machines to understand language was interesting to him. Hooshmand decided to take Intro Linguistics, loved it, and added Linguistics as a double major.

When he came across Professor Julia Hirschberg’s Speech Lab and their research on emotion and charisma in speech, it caught his attention. He emailed Hirschberg every semester for three semesters until, in the spring of 2021, there was finally an opening to join one of her projects which he accepted immediately.

The research project he was assigned to focused on automatically identifying humor in Facebook (FB) posts. The system the team created, Collecting Humor Reaction Labels, earned them a Best Paper award at a prestigious conference, Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing (EMNLP 2021). We caught up with Hooshmand to learn more about what it takes to do research and win an award.


Q: What is CHoRAL and what were your findings?
CHoRaL stands for Collecting Humor Reaction Labels, it is a framework for automatically scoring Facebook posts on humor. It presents two formulas, one to calculate a humor score, and one to calculate a non-humor score – each is based on the reaction distribution of a Facebook post.

Our paper presents both the framework and a dataset collected using the framework. The dataset contains about 800,000 COVID-related FB posts, each post was assigned humor and non-humor scores. Our goal for this framework and dataset is to enable future humor prediction research.

We validated our framework with experiments using several different BERT-based deep learning models. BERT is a machine learning model that learns contextual relations between words (or sub-words) in a text. We also ran lexico-semantic analyses on the humorous posts and non-humorous posts in our dataset to find some interesting patterns, like words related to space and time being negatively correlated with humor.

Facebook Reactions emojis
Facebook Reactions emojis


Q: How did this project come about? What was the process of deciding what to do?
The overall project didn’t have anything to do with humor immediately. The goal of this (ongoing) project is to detect fake and manipulated media online. As part of this larger goal, we thought it would be useful to automatically predict humor; then, if some piece of false information online is clearly humorous, we can attribute it to benign “fake news” and not anything malicious.

The pleasure of being an undergrad, though, is that I wasn’t fixated on these larger goals or the meetings with outside sponsors and collaborators that Professor Hirschberg and the PhD students attended. I got to focus on humor prediction and working directly with my PhD mentor, Zixiaofan Brenda Yang. Brenda came in with the brilliant idea to use Facebook humor reactions as a proxy for humor labels. At a high level, posts with more humor reactions would be more “humorous.” From there, the work became testing different methods to formalize this intuition.


Q: How much data did you have to work with? How was it processed?
So much data! We worked with millions of Facebook posts. We downloaded posts from CrowdTangle, a social media insights tool owned by Facebook. At first, we downloaded small batches of ~20,000 posts to test some of our formulas and definitions of humor and non-humor scores. In the end, we downloaded a couple of million Facebook posts and filtered them to keep only pure-text posts in English. We wrote the cleaning scripts in Python and ran them remotely on our lab computers.

User reactions to a humorous Facebook post (top) and a non-humorous post (bottom).


Q: Were you prepared to work on it or did you learn as the project progressed?
It was a bit of a trial by fire for me since I was unaware of the standard proceedings and expectations surrounding academic research. For example, it shocked me that most of the “framing” work is done only when it comes time for paper writing. For a lot of the research process, you do not actually have a set, detailed idea of how you are going to present your work.

I also had to study technical concepts from information theory and statistics as we went along. Luckily, I always had my mentor, Brenda, as a guide.

Q: What were the things you already knew and what were the things you had to learn while working on the project?
I knew about the state-of-the-art deep learning models for NLP (RNNs, Transformers, etc.) and some other basic machine learning concepts. Naively, I thought my work would involve working with these models all the time, playing with their architecture, and tuning their hyperparameters.

In reality, I focused much more on data collection, preprocessing, and developing those formulas on humor and non-humor scores. Data collection and preprocessing were almost completely new to me (aside from some preprocessing functions I had written in previous CS classes) –– at least for our project, this work was fairly straightforward.

Developing the formulas required a lot of experimentation and reading up on technical concepts. I spent a couple of days trying to understand KL divergence conceptually before we tried to use it for an element of our project. In the end, it did not even end up being part of the paper. The cool thing, though, is that once I read up on that I ended up using it later in the project as the basis for calculating our non-humor score.

Q: Looking back, what were the skills that you wished you had before starting the project?
I wish I had a greater understanding of reading scientific papers, writing them, and the expectations for what kind of information from your project goes into them. There were many instances throughout the semester where Brenda had to remind me that we needed to be thorough with a certain decision or read up on previous work that might have faced the same problem because we would need to justify all our processes to the scientific community.


Q: Did working on this project make you want to change your research interests or focus?
The most interesting parts of the project for me were the linguistic analyses we ran on our humor-labeled data and writing the paper. I think that is because I like to approach things from more of a linguistics perspective, not as much pure computer science, so I am trying to direct my research from that angle more now.

Q: Will you continue to work on CHoRAL? Or are you working on something else now?
I have switched to a text-to-speech project in the Speech Lab this semester, so I’m not working on CHoRaL full time anymore.

Q: Do you want to continue doing research and pursue a graduate degree?
I am definitely going to continue research throughout my undergrad years, and a PhD is possibly in my future. I am leaning toward working outside of academia for a few years after college and then applying to PhD programs later in my 20s.

Q: Would you recommend volunteering or seeking projects out to other students?
Of course! Even if you’re not interested in pursuing higher education, there’s so much to learn from a research environment. Particularly in the AI/ML space, doing research demystifies all the jargon and far-reaching statements about computer intelligence that you hear in the media. It is also a great way to gain practical skills, like keeping a project codebase organized and communicating the work I did independently with my mentors.

Q: Is there anything else that you think people should know about the project?
Not that I can think of right now, but if any students want to talk more about the project or undergrad research in general, my UNI is sh3988.


11 Research Papers Accepted to EMNLP 2021

Papers from CS researchers were accepted to the Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing (EMNLP) 2021. The Best Short Paper Award was also awarded to a paper from the Spoken Language
Processing Group.

Best Short Paper Award
CHoRaL: Collecting Humor Reaction Labels from Millions of Social Media Users
Zixiaofan Yang, Shayan Hooshmand and Julia Hirschberg


Humor detection has gained attention in recent years due to the desire to understand user-generated content with figurative language. However, substantial individual and cultural differences in humor perception make it very difficult to collect a large-scale humor dataset with reliable humor labels. We propose CHoRaL, a framework to generate perceived humor labels on Facebook posts, using the naturally available user reactions to these posts with no manual annotation needed. CHoRaL provides both binary labels and continuous scores of humor and non-humor. We present the largest dataset to date with labeled humor on 785K posts related to COVID-19. Additionally, we analyze the expression of COVID-related humor in social media by extracting lexico-semantic and affective features from the posts, and build humor detection models with performance similar to humans. CHoRaL enables the development of large-scale humor detection models on any topic and opens a new path to the study of humor on social media.


A Bag of Tricks for Dialogue Summarization
Muhammad Khalifa, Miguel Ballesteros and Kathleen McKeown


Dialogue summarization comes with its own peculiar challenges as opposed to news or scientific articles summarization. In this work, we explore four different challenges of the task: handling and differentiating parts of the dialogue belonging to multiple speakers, negation understanding, reasoning about the situation, and informal language understanding. Using a pretrained sequence-to-sequence language model, we explore speaker name substitution, negation scope highlighting, multi-task learning with relevant tasks, and pretraining on in-domain data. Our experiments show that our proposed techniques indeed improve summarization performance, outperforming strong baselines.


Timeline Summarization based on Event Graph Compression via Time-Aware Optimal Transport
Manling Li, Tengfei Ma, Mo Yu, Lingfei Wu, Tian Gao, Heng Ji and Kathleen McKeown


Timeline Summarization identifies major events from a news collection and describes them following temporal order, with key dates tagged. Previous methods generally generate summaries separately for each date after they determine the key dates of events. These methods overlook the events’ intra-structures (arguments) and inter-structures (event-event connections). Following a different route, we propose to represent the news articles as an event-graph, thus the summarization task becomes compressing the whole graph to its salient sub-graph. The key hypothesis is that the events connected through shared arguments and temporal order depict the skeleton of a timeline, containing events that are semantically related, structurally salient, and temporally coherent in the global event graph. A time-aware optimal transport distance is then introduced for learning the compression model in an unsupervised manner. We show that our approach significantly improves the state of the art on three real-world datasets, including two public standard benchmarks and our newly collected Timeline100 dataset.


Don’t Go Far Off: An Empirical Study on Neural Poetry Translation
Tuhin Chakrabarty, Arkadiy Saakyan and Smaranda Muresan


Despite constant improvements in machine translation quality, automatic poetry translation remains a challenging problem due to the lack of open-sourced parallel poetic corpora, and to the intrinsic complexities involved in preserving the semantics, style and figurative nature of poetry. We present an empirical investigation for poetry translation along several dimensions: 1) size and style of training data (poetic vs. non-poetic), including a zeroshot setup; 2) bilingual vs. multilingual learning; and 3) language-family-specific models vs. mixed-language-family models. To accomplish this, we contribute a parallel dataset of poetry translations for several language pairs. Our results show that multilingual fine-tuning on poetic text significantly outperforms multilingual fine-tuning on non-poetic text that is 35X larger in size, both in terms of automatic metrics (BLEU, BERTScore, COMET) and human evaluation metrics such as faithfulness (meaning and poetic style). Moreover, multilingual fine-tuning on poetic data outperforms bilingual fine-tuning on poetic data.


Implicit Premise Generation with Discourse-aware Commonsense Knowledge Models
Tuhin Chakrabarty, Aadit Trivedi and Smaranda Muresan


Enthymemes are defined as arguments where a premise or conclusion is left implicit. We tackle the task of generating the implicit premise in an enthymeme, which requires not only an understanding of the stated conclusion and premise, but also additional inferences that could depend on commonsense knowledge. The largest available dataset for enthymemes (Habernal et al., 2018) consists of 1.7k samples, which is not large enough to train a neural text generation model. To address this issue, we take advantage of a similar task and dataset: Abductive reasoning in narrative text (Bhagavatula et al., 2020). However, we show that simply using a state-of-the-art seq2seq model fine-tuned on this data might not generate meaningful implicit premises associated with the given enthymemes. We demonstrate that encoding discourse-aware commonsense during fine-tuning improves the quality of the generated implicit premises and outperforms all other baselines both in automatic and human evaluations on three different datasets.


GOLD: Improving Out-of-Scope Detection in Dialogues using Data Augmentation
Derek Chen and Zhou Yu


Practical dialogue systems require robust methods of detecting out-of-scope (OOS) utterances to avoid conversational breakdowns and related failure modes. Directly training a model with labeled OOS examples yields reasonable performance, but obtaining such data is a resource-intensive process. To tackle this limited-data problem, previous methods focus on better modeling the distribution of in-scope (INS) examples. We introduce GOLD as an orthogonal technique that augments existing data to train better OOS detectors operating in low-data regimes. GOLD generates pseudo-labeled candidates using samples from an auxiliary dataset and keeps only the most beneficial candidates for training through a novel filtering mechanism. In experiments across three target benchmarks, the top GOLD model outperforms all existing methods on all key metrics, achieving relative gains of 52.4%, 48.9% and 50.3% against median baseline performance. We also analyze the unique properties of OOS data to identify key factors for optimally applying our proposed method.


Continual Learning in Task-Oriented Dialogue Systems
Andrea Madotto, Zhaojiang Lin, Zhenpeng Zhou, Seungwhan Moon, Paul Crook, Bing Liu, Zhou Yu, Eunjoon Cho, Pascale Fung, and Zhiguang Wang


Continual learning in task-oriented dialogue systems can allow us to add new domains and functionalities through time without incurring the high cost of a whole system retraining. In this paper, we propose a continual learning benchmark for task-oriented dialogue systems with 37 domains to be learned continuously in four settings, such as intent recognition, state tracking, natural language generation, and end-to-end. Moreover, we implement and compare multiple existing continual learning baselines, and we propose a simple yet effective architectural method based on residual adapters. Our experiments demonstrate that the proposed architectural method and a simple replay-based strategy perform comparably well but they both achieve inferior performance to the multi-task learning baseline, in where all the data are shown at once, showing that continual learning in task-oriented dialogue systems is a challenging task. Furthermore, we reveal several trade-off between different continual learning methods in term of parameter usage and memory size, which are important in the design of a task-oriented dialogue system. The proposed benchmark is released together with several baselines to promote more research in this direction.


Zero-Shot Dialogue State Tracking via Cross-Task Transfer
Zhaojiang Lin, Bing Liu, Andrea Madotto, Seungwhan Moon, Zhenpeng Zhou, Paul Crook, Zhiguang Wang, Zhou Yu, Eunjoon Cho, Rajen Subba, and Pascale Fung


Zero-shot transfer learning for dialogue state tracking (DST) enables us to handle a variety of task-oriented dialogue domains without the expense of collecting in-domain data. In this work, we propose to transfer the crosstask knowledge from general question answering (QA) corpora for the zero-shot DST task. Specifically, we propose TransferQA, a transferable generative QA model that seamlessly combines extractive QA and multichoice QA via a text-to-text transformer framework, and tracks both categorical slots and non-categorical slots in DST. In addition, we introduce two effective ways to construct unanswerable questions, namely, negative question sampling and context truncation, which enable our model to handle “none” value slots in the zero-shot DST setting. The extensive experiments show that our approaches substantially improve the existing zero-shot and few-shot results on MultiWoz. Moreover, compared to the fully trained baseline on the Schema-Guided Dialogue dataset, our approach shows better generalization ability in unseen domains.Zero-shot transfer learning for dialogue state tracking (DST) enables us to handle a variety of task-oriented dialogue domains without the expense of collecting in-domain data. In this work, we propose to transfer the crosstask knowledge from general question answering (QA) corpora for the zero-shot DST task. Specifically, we propose TransferQA, a transferable generative QA model that seamlessly combines extractive QA and multichoice QA via a text-to-text transformer framework, and tracks both categorical slots and non-categorical slots in DST. In addition, we introduce two effective ways to construct unanswerable questions, namely, negative question sampling and context truncation, which enable our model to handle “none” value slots in the zero-shot DST setting. The extensive experiments show that our approaches substantially improve the existing zero-shot and few-shot results on MultiWoz. Moreover, compared to the fully trained baseline on the Schema-Guided Dialogue dataset, our approach shows better generalization ability in unseen domains.


Refine and Imitate: Reducing Repetition and Inconsistency in Persuasion Dialogues via Reinforcement Learning and Human Demonstration
Weiyan Shi, Yu Li, Saurav Sahay, and Zhou Yu


Despite the recent success of large-scale language models on various downstream NLP tasks, the repetition and inconsistency problems still persist in dialogue response generation. Previous approaches have attempted to avoid repetition by penalizing the language model’s undesirable behaviors in the loss function. However, these methods focus on tokenlevel information and can lead to incoherent responses and uninterpretable behaviors. To alleviate these issues, we propose to apply reinforcement learning to refine an MLE-based language model without user simulators, and distill sentence-level information about repetition, inconsistency and task relevance through rewards. In addition, to better accomplish the dialogue task, the model learns from human demonstration to imitate intellectual activities such as persuasion, and selects the most persuasive responses. Experiments show that our model outperforms previous state-of-the-art dialogue models on both automatic metrics and human evaluation results on a donation persuasion task, and generates more diverse, consistent and persuasive conversations according to the user feedback.


Attribute Alignment: Controlling Text Generation from Pre-trained Language Models
Dian Yu, Zhou Yu, and Kenji Sagae


Large language models benefit from training with a large amount of unlabeled text, which gives them increasingly fluent and diverse generation capabilities. However, using these models for text generation that takes into account target attributes, such as sentiment polarity or specific topics, remains a challenge. We propose a simple and flexible method for controlling text generation by aligning disentangled attribute representations. In contrast to recent efforts on training a discriminator to perturb the token level distribution for an attribute, we use the same data to learn an alignment function to guide the pre-trained, non-controlled language model to generate texts with the target attribute without changing the original language model parameters. We evaluate our method on sentiment- and topiccontrolled generation, and show large performance gains over previous methods while retaining fluency and diversity.


KERS: A Knowledge-Enhanced Framework for Recommendation Dialog Systems with Multiple Subgoals
Jun Zhang, Yan Yang, Chencai Chen, Liang He, and Zhou Yu


Recommendation dialogs require the system to build a social bond with users to gain trust and develop affinity in order to increase the chance of a successful recommendation. It is beneficial to divide up, such conversations with multiple subgoals (such as social chat, question answering, recommendation, etc.), so that the system can retrieve appropriate knowledge with better accuracy under different subgoals. In this paper, we propose a unified framework for common knowledge-based multi-subgoal dialog: knowledge-enhanced multi-subgoal driven recommender system (KERS). We first predict a sequence of subgoals and use them to guide the dialog model to select knowledge from a sub-set of existing knowledge graph. We then propose three new mechanisms to filter noisy knowledge and to enhance the inclusion of cleaned knowledge in the dialog response generation process. Experiments show that our method obtains state-of-the-art results on DuRecDial dataset in both automatic and human evaluation.